Remember that long line for a dinner table a year ago?
The crowds at Siesta Beach?
The dozens of people crawling all over that little secluded place you thought only locals knew about?
You weren’t imagining things. 2021 was about as big a year for tourism in Sarasota County as has ever been.
But it wasn’t all traffic and teeming masses. The dollars visitors left behind in the form of fees paid to vacation rentals, hotels, campgrounds and more for their stays of less than six months could add up to an additional percentage point of tourist development tax by next fall, up from 5% to 6 %.
That’s about $5.2 million additional with which to maintain and renourish beaches and potentially help fund larger-scale capital projects, such as Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s new aquarium project in Nathan Benderson Park.
Because Sarasota’s highest-ever collection of $31 million in tourist tax in 2021 (on about $620 million taxable sales) means the county is now certified as a High Tourism Impact County, which qualifies county leaders to consider raising the tourism tax rate.
And they’ve started the process.
The county’s Tourism Development Council in early March unanimously approved recommending to the County Commission that the tax be raised to 6%. On March 30, commissioners voted 4-1 (with Christian Ziegler dissenting) to schedule an April 26 public hearing on the topic.
If enacted, the new levy would go into effect Oct. 1, with the start of the new fiscal year.
“This is a great opportunity for us to provide additional amenities for our community,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said. “A lot of exciting things for our community.”
The additional percentage point adds to a tourism development tax that’s grown from 2% in 1988 to 3% in 1997, 4% in 2007 and half points in 2010 and 2011. Without the state’s designation of a High Tourism Impact County, the tax is capped at 5%. If the county agrees to implement the higher rate, it need not be renewed; it stays at 6%, said Kim Radke, the director of the Sarasota County Office of Financial Management.
If the higher rate is rejected, though, the process of recertifying the county’s taxable tourism receipts against the state threshold of $600 million in a calendar year starts all over again.
“Fingers crossed that we meet that threshold again this year or next year in order to be eligible to apply for certification again,” Radke said when asked what would happen if commissioners didn’t approve.
Without regard to the extra percentage point, the county uses revenue from the tourist development tax for a variety of things: beach maintenance and renourishment, sports tourism, spring training baseball stadiums in Sarasota and North Port, tourism promotion, arts and culture, and Nathan Benderson Park.
The additional point’s $5.2 million would be broken down this way: 70% for capital improvements and facilities, 20% for beach maintenance and 10% for beach renourishment. The capital improvements portion, Radke said, could go toward Mote’s project, money for which was sourced from elsewhere in the tourism development pot.
“If we do enact this, then we’re considering utilizing this money to fund the Mote project,” she said. “It would assist us with that need over the original plan of taking it from promotion.”
Sarasota County has pledged $20 million toward the construction of Mote’s aquarium, estimated to cost around $130 million to complete.
Radke said beach maintenance is a crucial chore for the county, especially in light of the crowds of tourists visiting.
“As we know, the beaches are one of our main tourist attractions, obviously, and maintaining them is important,” she said. “I guess if you asked the parks director and her staff, (the beaches) get pretty beat up these days. They’re very popular.”
Nancy Detert, chair of the Tourist Development Council and a county commissioner, called the tax a “win-win,” at the March 30 commission meeting but conceded earlier that it could serve to put back money Visit Sarasota budgets for promotion, money that had been redirected toward the Mote project.
Virginia Haley, director of Visit Sarasota, said the extra tax wouldn’t harm tourism at all.
“So instead of looking to her as the source, you would have this as the source,” Detert said. “And her promotion and the stuff that she’s done successfully for years would continue. So a vote for this is a vote to protect Virginias budget, kind of in a back-sided way.”
Kathleen Lehner, a member of the Tourism Development Council and the president of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, said she’s spoken to hotel owners who said an extra percentage point on a hotel bill of $300 or 400 a night “wouldn’t even be seen .”
“I guess the name of it says it all,” she said. “Certified High Tourism Impact means that they’re coming.”
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